Friday, April 13, 2012

Empire of the mind

Endless Conversation

Express Staff Writer

There is a scene in the 1981 film "Gallipoli" in which an idealistic young Australian sprinter is ready to ship off to fight the Turks in World War I. The great imperial powers of the world had squared off against one another in a conflict that would ultimately involve 70 million combatants and lead to the deaths of nine million, many in trench warfare in Europe.

The Great War also engulfed many colonies of the imperial powers around the world, including the U.K.'s Australia. The idealistic young enlisted man in the scene from "Gallipoli" could not wait to get to the front lines and experience the glory of battle.

Somewhere along the way he encounters a grizzled old man of the Outback making his way aimlessly across the desert. The young soldier tries to convince the old man how important it is for people to sign up and go fight the Turks and Germans.

"If we don't fight them there, they'll end up coming here and taking our country," the young man says. The old geezer thinks for a moment, taking a good long look around at the endless expanse of worthless desert and says, "Well they can bloody well have it."

The time is always right to ask what we are we fighting for, or perhaps more importantly, what is worth living for. Would I sacrifice my life for cheaper oil or to put a Home Depot in Kabul? Nope. Would I live a life in support of the free flow of information around the world, even if it continued to challenge many preconceived notions of history? Sure.

In recent years the alarm bells have been raised again and again about terrorism and the desperate state of the U.S. economy in relation to developing nations around the world. We are also warned about the erosion of the American middle class, its fortunes usurped by a financial elite who will rule us with iron fists inside velvet gloves. Am I supposed to man the barricades of the occupy protests, or take aim at enemies in the Middle East, or grow resentful of China?

In times like these, I take solace in the many folds and perspectives of history. Rather than jumping into an ideological trench, I continue to be fascinated by the way computers are bringing the many cultures around the world together in the pursuit of common interests. Many stories are being traded across cultural boundaries in a cloud of knowledge the world has never before seen.

The fictional characters in "Gallipoli" were tragically cut down during an Allied campaign to take the Gallipoli Peninsula and conquer Istanbul, the capitol of the Ottoman Empire. The peninsula, known in antiquity as the Thracian Chersonese, had been for 2,700 years fought over, captured and recaptured by Ionians, Aeolians, Athenians, Spartans, Persians, Macedonians, Romans and Ottomans.

The rulers of all these nations found it reasonable to send in waves of young men to kill and die for this narrow strip of land on an important trade route between Christendom and Islam. The most recent of these rulers was Mustafa Kemal in 1915.

Mustafa Kemal was an army officer who successfully repelled Allied forces and later became a national hero. The Gallipoli campaign boosted the career of Mustafa Kemal after he spurred his troops on against the British and their allies with a most awful battle cry: "I do not command you to fight, I command you to die. In the time it will take us to die we can be replenished by new forces," he said. According to historians, Kemal's 57th Regiment fulfilled the order precisely, when the entire regiment fell in battle.

Mustafa Kemal later became known as Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state. Following his fanatical leadership in battle, Ataturk ironically transformed Turkey into a secular democracy, reducing the influence of fundamentalist Islam and bringing moderation and tolerance to what is today a volatile and unstable region. Turkey is also a popular tourist destination that draws millions of visitors from around the world each year.

By some magic of the imagination, history again and again turns trade partners into barbarians at the gate, and back again. It is like the weather in the mountains; if you don't like it wait 10 minutes and it will change. I am looking forward to an even bigger change in the weather, when national pride and patriotic hoopla gives way to common sense.

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